Wayman Tisdale arrived on the OU campus in August 1982 amid much fanfare. But don’t overestimate the euphoria. Remember, he was a basketball player.
Tisdale missed that exhibition season with a foot injury, so he debuted in a marquee opener on Nov. 27: Oklahoma at UNLV. But that game was not broadcast live. Even on radio. Never forget how far Sooner basketball has come, thanks to Tisdale, who died Friday at the age of 44 as one of the most beloved sporting personalities in Oklahoma history. Much has been made in the last few days, rightly so, about Tisdale’s charm and charisma. Not enough has been made about his impact on the state’s sports landscape. That impact was epic. Tisdale and Bob Kurland, Henry Iba’s great Oklahoma A&M center of the 1940s, rank as the most influential athletes in state history. A few football players have surpassed them in fame. But no football player can impact a team or a culture the way a basketball player can, not even a Heisman Trophy winner like Barry Sanders or Steve Owens, or a renaissance-igniting quarterback like Jack Mildren or Josh Heupel. The baseball stars of Oklahoma had to leave the state to prosper. Great Olympians John Smith and Shannon Miller were in niche sports that never lit the general public’s fire. But Kurland turned A&M into a two-time NCAA champion and helped Iba lay the foundation for OSU’s basketball tradition. Tisdale’s big-bang arrival turned college basketball into a happening in this state and the Sooners into a national power. In 1982, wrestling was as big as basketball at OU. Tisdale changed that overnight, with Lloyd Noble Center regularly packed. Coach Billy Tubbs seized upon that momentum to recruit great players, schedule big-time opponents and build a program that, while still sitting in football’s shadow, remains nationally competitive. When Tisdale arrived at OU, the Sooners had been to one NCAA Tournament in the previous 33 years. They’ve been to 22 of the 27 staged since.
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